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Friday, May 12, 2017

BLACKENSTEIN -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle

Back in the early 70s, it was sort of a "thing" to take popular movie titles and add the word "black" to create new concepts in Blaxploitation.  This led to such films as BLACK GODFATHER, BLACK CAESAR, BLACULA, and, last but certainly not least, the unforgettably named BLACKENSTEIN (1973).

(Fortunately, this trend faded out before anyone came up with BLACK JAWS or BLACK ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.)

Despite the rather obvious joke reference of the title, however, BLACKENSTEIN isn't true "Blaxploitation" at all, since it lacks any of the usual dubious elements of that genre (pimps, hookers, drug dealers, guns, gratuitous racial references, etc.).

That we visit a blues club frequented mainly by black patrons in one scene is purely incidental.  In fact, the race of any character in the film could, as far as the story goes, be totally interchangeable.

Even the sadistic white male nurse who verbally abuses helpless Viet Nam vet Eddie, a black man, during his stay in a veterans' hospital, refrains from adding any racial epithets to his spittle-spewing tirade. (Prolific actor John Dennis gives what is probably the film's best performance here.)

The story is actually rather old-fashioned "Monster Kid" stuff about a brilliant scientist, Dr. Stein, who offers to help reconstruct Eddie after a landmine has blown off all four limbs.

Complicating things is the fact that Dr. Stein's creepy assistant Malcomb has fallen in love with Eddie's bride-to-be, the beautiful Dr. Winifred Walker, who's helping Dr. Stein with the procedure.  After she rejects his advances, Malcomb maliciously alters Eddie's DNA injections so that he will gradually evolve into a bestial, Frankenstein's Monster-like killing machine and go on a bloody rampage. 

An ornate Old Hollywood mansion provides ideal exteriors, as well as some of the dark, shadowy interiors, for Dr. Stein's modern Gothic abode (which, though sunbaked by day, seems forever plagued by lightning storms and fog at night).  Sparser sets make up the rest of the interior locations such as bedrooms for Dr. Stein's various experimental patients including Andrea King (THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS). 

The doctor's laboratory itself consists of a large, shadow-strewn room adorned with as much realistic-looking medical and electrical gadgetry as the filmmakers could muster, including, interestingly enough, some of Kenneth Strickfaden's original FRANKENSTEIN equipment.

Production elements such as direction, editing, and camerawork are decidedly unpolished, yet hardly unwatchable.  In fact, the film has its own earnest and oddly compelling quality which I found rather endearing. 

One thing BLACKENSTEIN does have going for it is a fairly tight pace, with director William A. Levey (SKATETOWN U.S.A., THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO WASHINGTON, WAM BAM THANK YOU SPACEMAN) moving us right along from one important plot point to the next with little or no padding and sometimes not much of a transition, either. 

Library music is wielded like a blunt instrument in piecing together the film's extensive score--often it's so wonderfully overwrought that it makes even Albert Glasser seem sedate by comparison.  Adding to the mood are some evocative blues songs by Cardella DeMilo, who appears in the nightclub scene.

What really makes this a fun monster movie is, of course, its monster.  Despite looking decidedly on the low-rent side, Joe DeSue's shuffling "Blackenstein" monster is an amusing, fun creation (even with his turtleneck shirt, square afro, and "Dad" boots) who manages to create a good amount of bloody havoc wherever he goes. 

A visit to that abusive male nurse is the first item on his rampage list, which he follows up on successive nights by slaughtering some nightclub patrons and then making quick work of several other hapless individuals who cross his path, complete with crude but colorful gore effects. 

The ending, involving a pack of vicious police dogs who seem not to have been fed recently, is particularly splattery.

In addition to the graphic violence, there's also a bit of nudity here and there, notably when Blackenstein pays a nocturnal visit to the home of famed stripper and mob moll Liz Renay, who resembles a young Dolly Parton and appears briefly in a see-through nightie.   

John Hart, probably best known for playing TV's "The Lone Ranger" for a season back in the early 50s, is a bland and rather philanthropic Dr. Stein, a stark contrast to the mad doctor of so many other Frankenstein spinoffs. 

Ivory Stone is a winsome Dr. Winifred Walker, while stoic Joe DeSue does an adequate job as Eddie before and after his fateful transition.  As Dr. Stein's assistant Malcomb, Roosevelt Jackson creeps us out by always sneaking furtive glances at Winifred even as she ministers to her bedridden fiancĂ© between operations.   

The Severin Films Blu-ray offers both the Theatrical Version and a new Video Release Version with about eleven minutes of extra footage.  These bonus scenes haven't been restored since the original elements no longer exist, which makes it easier to tell when we're seeing the added material.

Interestingly, the new and extended segments contain some relatively impressive camera moves and allow smoother transitions from one scene to the next.  Even the performances seem somewhat better with the fleshing out of the characters and dialogue.

The Blu-ray is in 1080p full HD resolution with English 2.0 sound.  Subtitles are available for the Theatrical Version.  Bonus features focus mainly on the fascinating life and mysterious execution-style murder of the film's writer-producer Frank R. Saletri.  His sister June Kirk is interviewed in the touching featurette "Monster Kid", while producers/directors/actors Ken Osborne and Robert Dix weigh in with their remembrances.  There's also an interview with monster makeup creator Bill Munns, an archive news broadcast about Saletri's unsolved murder, and a trailer.

The thing that struck me most about BLACKENSTEIN is that it isn't nearly as irredeemably awful as I'd always been led to believe.  That is, while the "so bad it's good" fun-factor still goes straight to eleven, there's also a kind of sincerity that's disarming. Even at its most lurid, exploitative, and inept, in its heart it just wants to be an old-fashioned monster movie.

Buy it from Severin Films


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